A Brush with Greatness 

The very colorful Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Girl with a Pearl Earring opens on a meticulously prepared meal of vegetables. Carrots, beats, and cabbage are painstakingly, if not artistically, sliced by young Griet (Scarlett Johansson), a properly raised and well-spoken young woman. We know immediately in the film that Griet, while of a poorer class, has intelligence, discipline, and even style. These are qualities not attributed to most women in those days. Rather, women had a place, and their virtues were recognized only amid their ability to stay within them. Flexibility was afforded the richer classes, where a woman’s appreciation for finery was easily interchanged for intelligence. But in this opening moment, with the vibrant orange of the carrots, the crimson of the beets, and the violet in a cabbage, we know that the film will be as subtle, baroque, and perceptive as both Griet and her master artist, Vermeer.

To fend off poverty, Griet’s mother sends her to work in the home of the well-to-do artist and his family. As she sets forth, she is encouraged to avoid listening to their Catholic prayers — stopping her ears if necessary. This is the world of 17th-century Holland. The artist is Jan Vermeer van Delft (Colin Firth). He is stoic, moody, quiet, distant. His wife Catharina (Essie Davis), is a woman of classical regency and good taste, and she is apportioned in a way that we now refer to as “Rubenesque.” She is with child again, and Griet is hired to help keep house.

With Vermeer always in his studio brooding over his next work, the home is run by Catharina’s mother, Maria (Judy Parfitt). Maria is a crisp old woman, corsetted and ruffled beyond recognizable femininity, whose matriarchal command is matched only by her keen grasp of the home’s financial necessities. No paintings equals no food. But Vermeer, dark and broody and all, can only seem to complete one painting a year. He walks a tenuous line with his patron Van Ruijven (Tom Wilkinson), and Van Ruijven must be pleased at the expense of all else.

Van Ruijven takes a liking to the beautiful young Griet and commissions a secret work. With Griet Vermeer’s model, he is now charged with seeing beyond her station and into her soul to the commercial end of satisfying his funder. Vermeer sees much. Griet has an eye for composition and color, a hand for the mixing of paints, and sensitivity to ideas. To Catharina, Griet is a beautiful object that Catharina could never be and that Vermeer should never have.

In the film’s most deftly played scene, Catharina insists on seeing the secretive portrait of Griet and is horrified at the result. “It’s obscene!” she cries out at the striking, intimate image of the girl wearing her mistress’ pearls. “Why don’t you paint me?!?” The moment is desperate and profound.
To enjoy Girl with a Pearl Earring is to love Vermeer’s work. Every moment seems lifted from the Vermeer workbook, and every scene is as subtle and as distinct in its gorgeous mundanity as any of his works. It is a quiet gem of a film, elegantly performed and artfully rendered by director Peter Webber in his big-screen debut. He has managed to graft some warmth onto the usually humorless Firth and has in Johansson drawn a performance of great depth and pathos, even though Griet is girl of few words.

“You’re a fly caught in his web. We all are,” says granny Maria to the young Griet. The warning to the scared girl is not about the lasciviousness of the artist. Rather, it is a caution about the intentions and machinations of his patron, Van Ruijven. Artists, even one of Vermeer’s skill and talent, could never forget that they served at the pleasure of the patron and with no greater aim than acquiring a commission for a next work.

Meanwhile, in 21st-century America, this dependence has translated to government arts programs that wax and wane as presidential administrations come and go. Instead of individual works, though, whole genres of art are left to the judiciary of political non-aesthetics. They do not know a lot about art, but they know what they like.

This beautiful film shows us that while much has changed, most of us still only know what we like and like what we know. — Bo List

Barbershop was the rare film that managed to both overachieve and underachieve at the same time. What promised to be just another thrown-together, lowest-common-denominator comedy was actually charming and funny and culturally alive. Barbershop could have been truly extraordinary had the filmmakers had the guts to dispense with narrative entirely in favor of 90-minutes-plus of community and conversation. Instead, the film was held back by its commitment to a hackneyed, rickety duel-storyline structure.

Cedric the Entertainer as the loudmouth barber Eddie.

Barbershop 2: Back in Business, while pleasant enough, contains none of the surprise and considerably less charm and fewer laughs than its predecessor. Like most sequels, it could just as well be subtitled "Back for More Cash."

The best thing about Barbershop 2 (and, come to think of it, this might be true for the first film as well) is the opening credits, a witty, engaging photomontage that traces black history through black hairstyles from 1967 to the present, making on-point comments about cultural influence and appropriation (Bo Derek's beads and braids, Vanilla Ice's high-top fade) along the way. Like the entirety of the first film, this sequence is nostalgic without being reactionary, moving without being saccharine.

Too much of Barbershop 2 looks back at the first film a bit too fondly, with too many of its bits reminding the audience of what they liked in the first film rather than providing laughs or insights of its own. It happens from Barbershop 2's very first scene. After Cedric the Entertainer's loudmouth boot-strapping barber Eddie provoked laughs (and ire) for his barbs about Rosa Parks and Jesse Jackson (who may or may not be the target of this film's talking-loud-and-saying-nothing alderman character) in the first film, Barbershop 2 bend backward for shock value in its opening moments when the character calls the D.C. sniper "the Jackie Robinson of crime" for "breaking into the white leagues of crime" (i.e., a crime not explainable by economic need and based on careful planning) then he leads his co-workers through a discussion of increasingly complex racial categories. (Of Prince: "He half Cherokee or something.")

If Cedric's Eddie was the breakout star the last time out, this time he's front and center, as Ice Cube's straight-man shop owner recedes a little bit. Eddie's backstory gets fleshed out and provides an inspiration for the shop's fight against gentrification when the chain shop Nappy Cutz opens across the street. And Eddie gets plenty of room to expound on questions of the day. (On Bill Clinton: "All I know is if you're gonna have oral relations with an ugly fat girl with no self-esteem, lock the door.")

If Barbershop wasn't focused enough, Barbershop 2 suffers from the same affliction much more severely. Whenever it could get away from its pointless plot mechanics and just hang out in the shop, Barbershop was a joy, conveying the daily rhythms of the shop with a casual grace that was intoxicating. Barbershop 2 (helmed by a different director) is pretty stiff by comparison -- overstuffed with dangling subplots and telegraphed laugh lines. -- Chris Herrington

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